Book publishers in denial on Amazon’s e-book sales

May 27, 2011, 3:32 PM UTC

New York’s Javits Center was a crowded, noisy hothouse of handshaking and book signing this week at BookExpo America. Every publisher and imprint was there with marketing reps, editors, and authors on hand. The mood was positive and, judging from the tote bags full of paper-and-ink galleys, you wouldn’t have known that e-book sales had recently overcome print book sales at Amazon.

“Well, there was a time when paperbacks surpassed hardcovers. And when television overcame radio,” reasons Catherine Tice, associate publisher of the New York Review of Books magazine. “There will also be a time when iPad sales surpass Kindle sales. Shifts will continue.”

That makes sense, but what about a time when consumers follow the lead of their e-books and go digital, leading Amazon to cause the extinction of brick-and-mortar bookstores? Will that time come, and are bookstore owners worried?

“I think some portion of the market will get lost to e-reading, yes, but literary fiction will still do well in print,” says Christine Onorati, the owner of WORD bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “People find books, especially commercial fiction like James Patterson’s, so much easier to just download. Is it disheartening? Yes, in the same way that it is when people go buy a book at Costco. But we’re not against e-books at all.”

Indeed, WORD sells e-books on its web site through Google (GOOG) Books, which you can read on your iPad, iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Nook, or Sony (SNY) reader. The drawback? “[Google e-books] just don’t play nice with a Kindle, because that’s proprietary to Amazon,” she explains, before adding of the Kindle sales news: “I don’t believe a thing Amazon says anyway.”

That opinion was echoed a few times. A rep from Princeton University Press, when asked his opinion on the news, said, “I’d like to see the numbers.”

But Faye Landes of Consumer Edge Research says Amazon’s (AMZN) news was true indeed — she tracks their sales data. “No one here wants to say this is bad for their business,” she says of the publishers seemingly in denial. “It’s good news for Amazon, but if people buy all their books on Amazon, for Kindle, they aren’t going to spend at bookstores anymore.”

Onorati says that WORD is doing quite well, and that with Borders going out of business and the possible dire future for big chain stores, small independent book shops have actually thrived. At the expo, she was hanging out with Emma Straub, herself a bookseller at BookCourt in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and also author of the well-received new story collection Other People We Married. Straub doesn’t seem thrilled with Amazon’s news but does say the move toward everything ‘e’ in the lit world is “unsurprising” as more authors flock to Twitter, for example, and adjust to reader interaction on the Web.

The e-book business model

Neither of those women owns a Kindle, and both say that if they were to get an e-reader (Onorati does have an iPad) it would not be a Kindle, since they want the freedom to buy e-books from places other than Amazon. That common complaint may not be slowing the Kindle down much. In a Consumer Edge Research study that surveyed a group of 300 people who all buy and read e-books, 138 of them said they do so exclusively on a Kindle. That number for the Nook from Barnes and Noble (BKS) was 28.

The real potential problem with Kindle e-books pushing print books off the mountain is profitability, Landes says. Higher sales of e-books doesn’t have to mean books will die. People are still reading, at least. But almost everyone involved makes less money from the sale of an e-book, though she acknowledges that there is the potential for a happy ending: “There are indications that people will buy both e-books and print books, because the type of people who have a Kindle are readers.”

Amazon also recently announced that it will launch its own general interest trade publishing imprint, for which it has poached Larry Kirshbaum, formerly of Hachette, to run. This news had some people at Book Expo further aggrieved.

A May 9, 2011 report from Consumer Edge Research explains: “Amazon is already the second-biggest player in physical books in the U.S. and the biggest player in e-books. An aggressive move into book publishing will likely enhance and consolidate the company’s power. We expect to hear a lot of bellyaching from traditional book publishers, who already in many cases resent Amazon’s power.”

Business publishers are less concerned. “We’re seeing a migration to digital, but that’s okay,” says Mary Dolan, sales director for Harvard Business Review Press. “It makes sense that the industry is going in this direction. For us, our audience is affluent, educated, mobile, and tech-savvy; we want to be where our readers are.”

And John Helmus, of Wiley & Sons’ business imprint, approaches the news from a bottom-line point of view: “We’re all looking at this as another opportunity,” he said. “That’s the only way you can look at it.”